August 10, 2022

The History of the Electoral College

Contrary to popular belief, the Electoral College has nothing to do with electricity and is not an institution of higher learning. It is, instead, how the United States actually elects its president. The concept of the Electoral College has been a part of the United States electoral system since the ratification of the Constitution.

The original drafters of the Constitution had to balance a number of competing desires in designing a system for the election of the President. They feared creation of a chief executive who could become equivalent to a king but did not want the citizenry to directly elect the president, fearing that people would end up voting for “native sons” in their particular states. At the same time, they wanted to preserve the role of the individual states in selecting a president while minimizing the potential impact of political parties.

To find a way to reconcile these different needs, the framers looked back to the Holy Roman Empire, which was a confederation of German states that lasted from the tenth through the eighteenth centuries, give or take a few years. The Holy Roman Empire allowed princes from the states which made up the confederation to choose who would become the Holy Roman Emperor by voting. The concept of the group of electors being a “college” came from the College of Cardinals who choose the pope for the Catholic Church.

The compromise that they came up with was to allow each state to select their own electors who would vote for the president. Each state got a number of electors equal to the number of representatives that they had in the House of Representative, plus two more, representing their senators. At the time of the original Electoral College, states were free to assign electors however they wanted, and electors could vote for whoever they wanted, with the proviso that they had to give at least one of their two votes to an out-of-state candidate. The House of Representatives would break ties, and the Senate would break a tie if one occurred in the House.

Over the years, a number of traditions have sprung up over the makeup and behavior of the Electoral College. Today, residents of each state directly vote for their own electors. Electors are pledged to cast their vote for the candidate to whom they are assigned, reducing the chance of an unexpected result. States, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, assign all of their electors to the candidate that wins the statewide vote. Because of these traditions, the outcome of the Electoral College’s voting is extremely predictable once election results have been returned.


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